Gathering the centuries like pearls


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Category: Travel 02 Feb 14

We arrived in Hyderabad late at night in the pollution-fuelled mist customary in cities in the winter in India. A faded memory of a bustling market, a giant arched gateway and tombs prompted me to ask the reticent driver—who spoke no English— in my halting Urdu to drive us to the hotel through the old city. He warned it would be a longer drive as it was Eid-Milan-un-Nabi, marking the birthday of the Holy Prophet of Islam.

We were unprepared for an utterly surreal entrance to the city. It was so densely illuminated from above— in canopies of fairy lights, neon colours flaring on mosques, tombs and pillars—that the sky seemed bathed in an impressionist painter’s dream strokes of iridescent pinks, purples, gold. The Mecca Masjid was lit in green and purple, its tall pillars and arches reflected in pools of water.

Wordless, wide-eyed on the road leading to the tall arched gateway to the city, we felt our taxi was in the midst of a tornado of people, surrounded by a thick chain of uniformed armed security. Our car inched past the roar of thousands: streets upon streets of processions, banners, floats depicting holy places of Islam, exuberant boys dancing, roaring past in groups waving flags.

We turned down our glass to feel the atmosphere when my husband— who is a true true cool Trini (the last earthquake in Trinidad barely got a reaction out of him)— yelped and ducked, making the driver swerve. Someone had flung something at him. Hard. He thought it was a missile. It was a packet of water.

The children started laughing. They couldn’t figure out whether it was Holi (Phagwa as we know it in Trinidad), Carnival or Christmas. It looked like it, except almost all the women were in full black burkha with kohl-lined eyes; the men in sherwanis and fez caps; girls dressed modestly in their finest, newest salwar kameez. Everyone, it seemed, had a cellphone.

The driver, suddenly buoyed, told us that for three days the festivities included feeding the poor by individuals, companies and religious and social organisations. He said homes, masjids, open markets and gardens had turned into venues for Muslims to gather and recall the teachings of the Holy Prophet, and that there were exhortations from religious scholars for peace and harmony in the name of Islam.

This calmed my Trini Muslim husband down considerably. Why are we here? asked the children.  I must have been about eight years old, living in Bangalore with my grandmother, when my mother took me to Hyderabad for a few days to meet her family.  By then, through my grandmother’s storytelling, I had already absorbed a memory of the family in Hyderabad that went back to 1857 when my great-great-great-grandfather from Uzbekistan (these series of greats still make me giggle) was enlisted by the British to help put down the Indian mutiny in 1857.

My grandmother showed me a photo of herself: a plump, pugnacious child on her own great-grandfather’s lap—an autocratic figure with a spectacular Victorian moustache and a name one would associate with children’s fairytales: Sir Afsar Ul Mulk. She was proud of how an ordinary soldier like him rose to become the general of the army of the fifth Nizam of Hyderabad, who was at the time the richest man in the world.

Seven Nizams, she told me, a dynasty founded by the Turks, had ruled Hyderabad, for two centuries until 1947 when it was the wealthiest and largest of India’s 566 princely states.  The Nizams patronised Persian art, architecture and culture, now central to the Hyderabadi Muslim identity, wrapped in exquisitely polite, courtly gestures. Food actually gets cold here as everyone waits for everyone else to eat first. Youngsters are always jumping up and down to greet an older person.

Now, driving around Hyderabad, visiting the palaces of the Nizams— the spectacular Falaknuma, built by an Italian, with its Louis XIV-style décor, a Mugal ambiance, marble staircases, fountains; watching birds flutter on the arches of Charminar palace; visiting the Salar Jung Museum, which houses some of the world’s largest private collections of art and artefacts; wandering along the empty durbar halls of Chowmalhallah Palace, a replica of the Persian Shah’s palace in Isfahan; imagining my ancestor galloping around on the impregnable Golconda fort—I remember my grandmother’s stories of family members: of women conducting love affairs by concealing notes in paan leaves; of proxy marriages that revealed ugly brides; of broken-hearted widowers weeping at the graves of their wives buried in their rose gardens.

The stories were unending because Sir Afsar Ul Mulk married an Arab woman and the two had 12 children, all of whom had many children of their own. This autocratic army man was so forceful that there is a Facebook page devoted to his descendants.  And so I found myself walking along with a cousin, also a greatgreat- great-great-great-granddaughter, threading through the centuriesold pearl markets of Laad Bazaar near the Charminar palace (this was once called the City of Pearls, as it once was the only global trade centre for large diamonds and natural pearls).

I see poverty here, hovels among the diamond shops, but strangely, little bitterness. There is a sufi-like feeling here: every community contained, looking to survive. There is perpetual nostalgia, too—it is primarily Indians and not tourists who throng every day to look at the shells of their past: of tombs, and pillaged palaces—but strangely, not a sense of loss.

Walking along the shops, eating paan, examining silverware, Kalamkari paintings, lacquer bangles studded with stones, hand-woven silks among women covered in black sheets tapping into iPhones, I am once again filled with a sense of an elusive India. She gathers its centuries like pearls, yet looks sharply at future configurations and stands before you, an eternally elusive, richly textured, bewildering idea.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur